Seattle artist Susan Robb’s work has been praised by art critics and gallery owners across the country. But the impact of what she does stretches beyond insider art circles. Her work creates new friendships and gets people thinking about how to live better lives.
Robb grew up in the Connecticut suburbs. Life there got a little dull at times. So Robb took it upon herself to spice things up bit. As a teenager she convinced her friends to help her organize a séance on the beach. They charged money for the opportunity to commune with the spirit world — enough money that Robb and her friends were able to buy pizza afterwards.
Robb's budding entrepreneurship would often slide into pure instigation. “I had this idea that it would be great to have this shaving cream pool party. There was some warehouse store where we went and we bought cases of cheap shaving cream and then invited all these kids over. We sprayed shaving cream everywhere. That was so fun! And it destroyed the pool! My dad was not happy.”
Convincing people to try new things is still a big part of Robb’s art. "My work is an ongoing investigation of people, place and our search for utopia,” she explains. "I do that through video, photography, site specific installations and experiential projects.”
In her artwork Robb gets people thinking more deeply about their surroundings, their relationships and issues they face in their lives. One of her pieces is called "The Long Walk." Robb talks about a group she calls her Long Walkers. These are the 50 people Robb convinced to join to her on a four-day, 45-mile journey — on foot— from the shores of Puget Sound in Seattle, all the way to Snoqualmie Falls.
The Inspiration Behind "The Long Walk"
Over the course of "The Long Walk," participants moved from suburbs into forests and farmlands. The length and pace of the walk gave them a perspective on the region they’d never had before. There was also time for the kind of reflection and thoughtful conversation often missing in our busy daily lives.
Robb describes "The Long Walk" as a piece of performance art and social engagement. It takes place on the King County Regional Trail System. When Robb first proposed "The Long Walk," she recalls being met with skepticism. "The Parks Department at first was, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you gonna do? You’re walking on the trails with people?'”
Breanne Gearheart is one of the Long Walkers. She is a landscape architect and artist. Gearheart experienced the same sense of renewal that Robb’s father did when he went walking. “This gracious space has been given to you," says Gearheart. "Physical space, but really like mental and emotional space has been cleared out. And you have these fresh people that are in the same mindset of openness.”
Robb’s art gets people looking inward. But her work also encourages an outward view towards serious problems facing the world. For one recent piece Robb constructed two dozen giant black tentacles out of garbage bags. These tubes are activated by solar power. They wave lazily in the air like beds of kelp swaying in ocean currents. “That garbage bag material — it’s just filled with air, and then heated by the sun and it becomes buoyant like a hot air balloon,” Susan explains. “It’s pretty miraculous. Every time I do it, even I’m like, ‘ah this is pretty neat.’ These things are 80 feet tall. They’re moving around and they are alive.”
Robb’s piece, "Warmth, Giant Black Toobs," has toured across the country. It’s a musing on the environmental threat posed by the massive accumulation of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. In describing this kinetic sculpture, Robb says her piece dwarfs you. "They are so tall. It does give a sense of the problem. The immensity of this amount of garbage we create. It’s just so much bigger than we are."
In 2014 Robb will embark on another massive, multi-disciplinary and communal project in the spirit of "The Long Walk." For "Wild Times," Robb will take a five-month, 2,650 mile solo walk from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. As she walks, she’ll communicate via Skype with a series of what she calls base camps. In settings ranging from art institutions to juvenile detention centers, Robb will exchange ideas from the trail on what it means to be wild.
Robb hopes her latest project will attract a new group of followers.
In 2013 KUOW presents “13 for '13”, in partnership with The Seattle Times. This 12-part series profiles 13 members of the Seattle-area’s diverse cultural community, people who have had an impact and are poised to shape the cultural landscape in the decade to come.